The fatal crash of a commuter train this week near New York City has brought the dangers of grade crossings back into the national spotlight. The MetroNorth train struck an SUV on the tracks in Valhalla NY, in suburban Westchester County, on Wednesday. The crash killed the SUV’s driver as well as five passengers on the train.
This transportation accident has resonance even here in Oregon. As I have regularly documented on this blog, Tri-Met’s bus and light-rail systems have suffered several fatal accidents involving pedestrians and bike riders over the last few years. The newspaper notes that nationally “the numbers of accidents and fatalities at rail crossings have fallen steadily, as grade crossings have been eliminated and safety improvements made, according to safety groups.” Still, the numbers nationally remain surprisingly high: in 2013, 2096 accidents led to the deaths of 288 people. That is a reduction of about one-third when compared to 2004, according to the Times, but it is still a surprisingly large number of both accidents and fatalities.
The article goes on to note that the New York area, which remains criss-crossed with grade crossings to an extent seen in only a few other cities, has not seen train-car fatalities decline at a similar rate. The paper reports that “since 2003, there have been 125 grade crossing accidents on New Jersey Transit lines, 105 on the Long Island Rail Road and 30 on Metro-North Railroad, according to the latest Federal Railroad Administration data.
It is fair to say these accidents are particularly sad because they are so easily preventable. Never stopping your car on the train tracks is advice so self-evident it should not need to be repeated (though in the wake of this week’s crash the Times to offer a helpful, if slightly macabre, primer on what readers should do if their car stalls out on the railroad tracks).
As a Portland auto and pedestrian accident attorney I follow issues like this closely. It is easy to dismiss accidents like the one in New York as something unique to more densely populated parts of the country, but to do so would be a mistake. Portland, with its growing mix of cyclists, runners, cars, semi-trucks, buses and light rail is an environment where small lapses in judgment can have life-threatening consequences. That calls for responsible action on every Oregonian’s part, whether they are on foot, on a bike or in a vehicle – but it also calls for greater attention to be paid to these safety issues by public transport systems like Tri-Met and by the railroads (which are generally responsible for maintaining the safety equipment at rail crossings). Signaling equipment that is not up-to-date and properly maintained represents a threat to everyone.